AM radio dial

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to launch a rulemaking this month that would begin the process of allowing AM stations to switch off their analog transmitters and rely only on a digital signal. The idea, first floated by Bryan Broadcasting last March, has the support of several small operators. But some listeners are telling the FCC it remains too soon for such a leap.

“Analog AM is not dead, and I listen regularly,” said a New Jersey listener in comments filed with the agency. “If the FCC would have enforced manufactured products to control RF noise like they should, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” wrote Joe Divito, who added, “I wouldn’t pay extra for a digital radio, and don’t see the value.”

Another self-described longtime AM listener in Vermont, Thomas H. Tompkins, said he too opposes the idea. “There are too many ‘legacy’ radios in circulation that would be rendered utterly obsolete by the switch,” he told the FCC, adding, “I believe the most important function of this band presently is the transmission of voice, which I don't believe would be greatly improved by switching to a digital mode.”

Both comments represent a hint of what some radio engineers have said the potential risk is to allow stations to only broadcast in digital. While technically feasible, especially given that a vast number of AMs now also rely on FM translators to reach listeners, they’ve quietly argued that digital radio penetration rates aren’t yet at a level to support a move to digital-only. There are also questions about what that could do to overall AM listening with fears it could shrink the band’s reach, not grow it.

Speaking at the Radio Show in Dallas in September, David Layer, VP of Advanced Engineering at the National Association of Broadcasters, said the coverage area for all-digital AM is “a lot better” than hybrid analog-digital AM broadcasts. But there’s also a tradeoff.

“The important thing to keep in mind is that only people with digital radios will receive the all-digital signal,” Layer said. “A broadcaster wouldn’t make a decision to switch lightly. They’re going to disenfranchise their listeners that don’t have digital radios.” Nevertheless, the NAB has been among the participants in a series of field tests of all-digital AM and, based on the results, it has backed the proposal saying all-digital AM service will allow broadcasters to provide “substantially improved sound quality” that could help stations to “retain and attract listeners” in the increasingly competitive audio marketplace.

Xperi, which licenses the digital radio technology and stands to benefit by a push for more AMs to adopt its In-Band On-Channel (IBOC) system, has said there are now more than 55 million HD Radio-equipped cars on the road in the U.S. and all major auto brands now offer factory installed digital receivers, although all aren’t standard. “All told, the time is ripe for the Commission to take the next step both in radio broadcasting and in its effort to revitalize the AM band by adopting rules to facilitate and hasten the inevitable transition to an all-digital future,” it told the FCC.

Xperi charges a one-time licensing fee of around $10,000 for single main channel broadcasting and additional annual fees based on a percentage of revenues for each additional sub-channel. It reports that there are currently 2,300 digital radio stations nationwide, with fewer than 250 AM stations operating in hybrid mode.

In a draft order of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (MB Docket Nos. 19-311 and 13-249) released this week, the FCC said it is examining not only the market penetration of digital receivers but also the impact the move would have on Americans with analog-only radios. “In a market with very few stations, a single station’s conversion to all-digital could reduce options for analog-only listeners,” it said. The FCC said it is also looking at whether preserving the long-term economic viability of an AM station would justify the present-day loss of service to other listeners.

Ben Downs, VP/GM of Bryan Broadcasting, said AM has become a “hostile” environment for music-based programming but all-digital signals could put the band on its best footing since the 1970s. “The all-digital version of AM HD allows it to compete with a unique music format,” he said in an email. “All digital (MA-3 mode) won’t be the answer for every AM station. But it will be perfect for some stations that want to compete with a music format.”

The Media Bureau last year granted one-year experimental authority to conduct tests on all-digital using Hubbard Radio’s adult alternative “The Gamut” WWFD Frederick, MD (820). That included testing to see how the switch to an all-digital signal impacts WWFD’s coverage area. Nine all-digital AM tests were conducted between 2012 and 2014, spanning a variety of station types and geographic locations. Participants labeled it a success, but the FCC notes the station had to undergo “considerable upgrades” to achieve an all-digital signal. And while the test continues, WWFD has had “transmission issues” that have limited its all-digital capabilities, such as the ability to transmit song and artist visual metadata. In addition, the FCC said WWFD experienced signal impairment in its “nighttime directional null."

For its part, the FCC has not yet publicly said which way it is leaning. Rather than include draft conclusions in the rulemaking proposal, it has opted to simply ask a series of questions that the agency hopes to collect feedback on. And while a number of small broadcasters have said they back giving AM owners the option of going digital-only, the large radio groups with the most sway at the Commission have yet to say whether they’d back the move.